Christian Living: Letter Regarding Pacifism

I read your article “War in the Old Testament” and especially “Pacifism and the Church of God” with more than normal interest. As you noted, considering the possible implications for our young men and women, this is a serious subject. It intrigues me because of having done a graduate project on the American peace movement, with special reference to the 1920s, and having had to argue the case for just war in an exegesis class at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada, in 1993 (assigned by the instructor).

Let me say at the outset that I can relate to the inconsistency you address. We were somewhat unorthodox pacifists. The Quakers, as you mention, were much more in the classic mould. This imprecision was not — alas — uncommon with many of our doctrinal positions in the past. It is good that we are more systematically addressing and discussing these matters. It is in that spirit I make these remarks below.

My comments basically concern your editorial (“Pacifism and the Church of God”) more than the main article. I simply want to draw attention to the complexities and vagaries of our own corporate history. I felt two or three of your points needed rounding out.

First, I refer to your statement regarding the Vietnam War that “there was no question where our hearts were.” This statement reveals a lot about the make-up of our denomination in the 1960s and 1970s, at least as far as the United States is concerned. However, even here, I’m sure you can think of many people, as I can, who were from the “GI Generation” and were sincerely revulsed and repelled by their experiences in World War II and Korea.

Also, I feel that when it comes to international areas, your statement re. Vietnam needed some qualifying. Some of us in Canada found it hard to fit some of the more jingoistic statements we made in print into our overall worldview. We were glad that diversity was allowed on this matter.

Second, the point that “we never published a single article condemning American actions in Southeast Asia” rings true. But I am interested enough in our past to feel the need to shed some light on your statement re. Herbert Armstrong’s May 1971 article justifying the American presence in Vietnam. I cite this because I vividly remember Mr. Armstrong telling us the background to his article in a forum at Bricket Wood. Herbert Armstrong wrote that article after a visit with the American Ambassador to South Vietnam, Ellsworth Bunker. Mr. Armstrong had just read an AP release from an army nurse in the field at Quang Tri who was heartsick that so many American boys were dying in Vietnam without having American policy explained there clearly and squarely. This stirred HWA’s journalistic juices. His exact quote I think I can remember: “I am going to explain to the American people why we are in Vietnam.” In this case it seems that a mixture of compassion and a penchant for journalism were his primary motives. The article itself took his usual hard-hitting anti-Communist line but never comes close to arguing the case for a just war.

Of course, the complexity of his position as a church leader ostensibly committed to a form of pacifism while proclaiming himself a life-long anti-Communist is germane to your evaluation I alluded to earlier. I simply relate this because it is one case where I have a fairly vivid recollection of the background to this story and felt the need to add some context.

Third, there was, as you note, in our writing on Vietnam — in our whole pacifist position — a complexity of motives. Yet in my memory our position had a rough-edged — if somewhat simplistic — consistency to it: No nation need ever fight if they turned to God (a questionable exegesis, as you say, if you turn to the Old Testament), but once at war they should prosecute it vigorously. This is, to a certain extent, arguing in a circle for alleged pacifists. But the circle may not be a vicious one. My main memory of these articles of the 1960s and 1970s was the conclusion “we must trust God to fight our battles.” But perhaps others can point out if time has fogged my memory on some of this.

Finally, in reference to the Persian Gulf War, I again want to note the complexity and diversity of views on this in the Church once international areas are concerned. Members in southern Europe, I was told, took a much less jingoistic view on this one as well. In fact, we did publish an article “What It Means to be Number One” in November-December 1991 critiquing at least some of the flag-waving that was going on. These are minor points, perhaps, in the midst of such a weighty subject, but they did cross my mind as I was reading. I look forward to your next installment.

Neil Earle, 1996

Author: Neil Earle


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